Wednesday, January 14, 2015

2 Peter: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include artwork by famous artists.

The second letter of Peter claims to have been written by the apostle Peter, but scholars today generally believe it was written by a second century Christian writing in Peter’s name, to give the letter authority.  This was a fairly common practice at the time, as we saw with Paul’s “Pastoral Letters” (which were probably not written by Paul).  Invoking the apostle Peter gave the author some extra “firepower” against his opponents, which seems to be the main theme of the letter (trash talking opponents).

The apostle Peter probably did not write the letter of 2 Peter.

I found 2 Peter to be quite harsh in tone and not a very edifying read.  As in some earlier epistles, the author engages in some serious name-calling against his ideological opponents.  Instead of engaging in reasoned argument, 2 Peter commits two logical fallacies: ad hominem (attacking the opponent, rather than the argument), and appeal to authority (Peter).  First, ad hominem.  In chapter 2, the author calls his opponents “irrational animals, mere creatures of instinct, born be caught and killed.”  The author is somewhat vague about exactly which points of doctrine he disagrees with.  Instead, he accuses them of sexual immorality (a common low-blow tactic), and believing in “cleverly devised myths.”  The second logical fallacy the author of 2 Peter commits is appeal to authority.  Instead of reasoned argument, he throws down his (probably false) credentials.  Because the author is (supposedly) an eyewitness and an apostle, he says “we have the prophetic message more clearly confirmed.”  If, as many scholars today contend, Peter did not actually write 2 Peter, this part of his argument falls apart.

What is perhaps most disturbing about 2 Peter is the way the author deals with his ideological opponents.  Basically, he says they are going to hell.  He writes, “for them the deepest darkness has been reserved” and “Their condemnation, pronounced against them long ago, has not been idle, and their destruction is not asleep.”  The letter is full of references to the destruction of the the author’s ideological opponents.  Interestingly, the word the author uses for "hell" is Tartaros, which is the place that the Greek god Zeus cast the Titans to when he defeated them.

The Fall of the Titans.

The only clear-cut, actual belief that the author of 2 Peter engages with in an intelligent way is this: some Christians were starting to doubt that Jesus was coming again, in power and glory.  The author writes that “scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging in their own lusts and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming?  For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!’”  If I was a Christian living in the second century who believed, as both Jesus and Paul attested, that Christ would return within “this generation,” and then all that generation died, I would probably start to doubt that particular point of doctrine.  Peter’s response to this crisis is quite clever, and would form the standard Christian answer for the long delay of Christ’s return.  He says, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years.”  It’s a clever argument, but it also represents a fundamental shift from earlier Christian belief.  Remember, for example, when Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 16:26: “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the son of man coming in his kingdom.”  And in 24:34, he says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”  That didn't happen.

I must admit, I don’t care for 2 Peter.  It seems like a mean-spirited forgery that engages in the very worst tendencies of Christians throughout the ages—saying that people who don’t agree with you are bad people who are going to hell.  This tactic seems to betray the fundamental Christian virtue of love, even for one’s “enemies.”

This is Papyrus 72, the oldest source of 2 Peter.  It dates from the 3rd to 4th century C.E.

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